Lydia Hounat is a British-Algerian writer and photographer, residing between London, Cornwall, and Manchester. She studied English with Creative Writing at Falmouth University before embarking on the MA in Writing at Royal College of Art. She critiques contemporary literature at LITBTICH and edits interdisciplinary art for SOBER. Magazine. She was recently a Poet-in-Residence with Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections Archives.
I wondered then, what does “female empowerment” mean in dress, without implying that the dress ought to embody masculinity in order to empower? Must it imply resistance then? How does “female empowerment” appear within matriarchal societies such as the one my grandmother came from, Kabyle (a sub-community of the Amazigh), and how is that replicated and appropriated in the contemporary fashion world? What is an “empowered woman”?
These questions are still bubbling in my head, having written what is essentially a first draft of my final work. And I wonder, had Yves Saint Laurent outrightly admitted his inspiration from Amazigh cultures, given his status as a pied-noir himself (someone who moved to France after living in French Algeria), would there have been a greater interest in crediting the native communities within North Africa?
Kebouche, Béjaïa, Algeria — Kebouche is a small village in the province of Béjaïa, Algeria. It was also the birthplace of my grandmother. 120mm, expired ORWO infra-red slide film.
Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘The Beaded Jacket’ is the ground from which the discourse on Amazigh people can emerge because of his renown in popular culture and the fashion industry. Ultimately, the primary function of this work is to address the Amazigh identity with equal, if not greater, recognition, for they’re a demographic whom both historically and literary I feel have been overlooked. For many years they have been dismissively referrred to as the “Bedouins” or more widely known by their derogatory name, “Berbers”, meaning ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ in Arabic. Amazigh on the other hand, means ‘free man’. There are several sub-communities of the Amazigh, my family are Kabyle Amazighens and reside in the province of Béjaïa, northeast Algeria, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Tell Atlas Mountains.
The form and structure of the work follows the Karakou jacket making process, chapter-by-chapter, piece-by-piece, where by the end, the jacket is assembled. Some chapters imitate pattern cut-outs or texture, e.g. the ‘Fabric’ chapter is hyphenated to imitate the even distribution of woven tufts in velvet, the material used for the Karakou and YSL’s ‘The Beaded Jacket’.
After the death of my grandmother, whom I did not know well, I sought to know her better through her clothes, her values and memories of her. The jacket is in a way, another way in which I access her. By speaking with relatives and friends, it has been possible to write with precision and accuracy. Kabyle-Girl-Karakou fits no one specific genre, it is, at its most “specific”, an essay which embodies documentary, memoir, poetry and includes more visual elements such as photography and drawings.
This writing is part of a collective group of texts I am continuing with in future.
Still from 'I'm Talking to Wood, to Stone... History Could Bring Fire!' — https://youtu.be/Ocvifj6mj8w
At the time (February 2019), Algeria was facing demonstrations and protests across the country. Known as ‘The Revolution of Smiles’, or the ‘Hirak Movement’, more than 70,000 people all over Algeria marched, demanding constitutional change. These protests are still taking place, though they have reduced in number since the onset of Covid-19. As members of the Algerian government and army began to step down, the country’s stability once again shook. There was no longer a core government, and the people were adamant President Bouteflika immediately resign, having been in office since 1999. It was not a safe place to be in, yet I was determined I’d go there.
Algeria’s story of colonialism begins 3,200 years ago. It has been conquered by the Phoenicians, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Ottomans, the French. The weight of historical trauma has crippled Algeria, and the entirety of Africa for millenia. It continues to do so. I underestimated how much it could endanger someone like me, navigating a mixed identity, protected by the English bubble I grew up in. I could not understand why my being there would be problematic or a threat, given that I had been to Algeria many times before, and given my Amazigh heritage.
It was only until I looked beyond the Karakou and the confines of French fashion houses, did I then feel the blood ooze from my research. In the thick of it, I felt my grandmother’s wounds, my father’s wounds, and my own, align in an intergenerational trauma. The jacket was reduced to an artefact of colonialism, rather than a powerful symbol of Amazigh resistance.
This film is a preface to Kabyle-Girl-Karakou, as well as a messy, incomplete and violent introduction to understanding contemporary history of Algeria. It is named after my father’s exclamation in the film, ‘I’m talking to wood, I’m talking to stone... History could bring fire!’. Our discussions dissolved the ignorant preconceptions I had over travelling to Algeria, believing it would “be simple”.
Film cuts from different sources, including my own work, feature the violence and war Algeria has endured for millennia. It is clear now, and always has been, that history cannot be a study of the past when it is so inherently present.